By Eli Hillman, LCSW
When parents are attuned to their children and clearly convey their caring feelings, children develop the ability to express themselves, to trust and have confidence in themselves and to be comfortable in their own skin.
However, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. When a parent hovers, trying to anticipate their child’s every need, the child may not develop adequate confidence in their own judgment and ability.
Care needs to be provided in a balanced and measured way to promote a child’s sense of agency. Parents need to communicate that it is OK to try and not succeed; and OK to make mistakes.
When parents provide sufficient—not excessive–care and interest, children learn to listen to themselves and use their feelings as a guide when making decisions.
An example of a mom who cares too much
Sally loves her son, but uses him to fulfill her own needs for affection. She is unaware of this, but is able to use my observations to modify her behavior towards him.
Her son, Keith, is a six-year-old boy full of curiosity and excitement. But Sally worries because he expresses a lot of self-doubt and, at times, becomes aggressive towards her.
She reports, “I wish I could keep Keith home with me all day and not send him to school. He’s so cute.” She then discloses, “Keith often says ‘I wish I wasn’t alive. I want to die.’ And sometimes he is aggressive towards me and gets fresh. I worry about him”
I listen to Sally’s dilemma.
She continues, “I want Keith to feel good. Every morning, as soon as he wakes up I bring his cereal right to his bed. I want him to know how precious he is to me—he seems to doubt himself so much. I love to be comforting—and I like to have the opportunity of giving him something he likes.”
As I listen to Sally, I can feel her love and concern. But I also suspect that she is over-caring. The way she anxiously focuses on Keith might make him feel uncertain about himself. He also might find it annoying.
I tell Sally, “I think your intentions are good. But perhaps your caring is interfering with Keith’s ability to do things for himself and that doesn’t feel good to him.”
Sally listens attentively and says, “You mean because he needs his independence?”
I say, “Yes.”
She asks, “So what should I do?”
I reply, “If Keith comes to the kitchen for his cereal he will feel a little better because he’s meeting you half way and he’s taking the initiative…”
Sally nods in agreement.
As Sally steps back and encourages Keith to do things for himself, he feels more independent and better about himself. And he is also more able to appreciate Sally’s care. But when Sally “over-cares,” Keith loses initiative and gets frustrated with being the center of her life.
When power is the issue
Margaret is a recently-divorced mom. She says of her son, “Nick is an energetic, adventurous 7-year old boy who loves Star Wars and Ninja Turtles. But he gets bored quickly and insists everything has to be done his way. He gets pretty aggressive at home and at school, the teachers tell me he punishes children if they don’t do things his way.”
Margaret tells me that after the divorce she decided to allow her child to be part of everything she does.
She says, “Well, I think the kids come first. And I want him to be part of my decisions-making. I talk to him about everything. I feel the divorce was hard enough. So, I let him decide what I should do. I want him to know how much he matters to me.”
I wonder about the impact of this on Nick.
When I meet Nick, the first thing I notice is how much he sounds like his mom–even using the same language and gestures. It’s like the two of them are one person. I wonder if Nick feels that he can be separate and independent from his mother.
Margaret is attempting to show her love and care for Nick by empowering him. But I remind her that she is the mother and he is the child. By involving Nick in her decision-making, she is giving him too much power which confuses and burdens him. As a result, he has become very bossy, controlling and insecure.
Margaret listens, but says, “I know, but I feel so bad. I want him to know I take his needs seriously.”
I explain that she can ask his opinion about important decisions, but that she needs to let him function as a child. Then he will feel freer to play and be a boy rather than controlling others like a little adult.
Am I Over-caring?
If you think you might be over-caring, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I consulting and discussing things with my child on issues above their maturity level?
- Am I doing things for my child that they are fully capable of doing for themselves?
- Do I feel bad if my child says “I can do it on my own”?
- Is my child less expressive when I help?
- Do I behave as if my child is my best friend?
If we allow our children to do things their own way, they will develop independence and feel good about themselves. Children need to test ideas, make mistakes and learn from them. So, as long as there is no threat of injury, let them figure it out.
Eli Hilman, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist in private practice in Forked River and Shrewsbury NJ. He graduated the William Alanson White Institute’s Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program